Dan Wilson is a damn fine songwriter. From his early work with Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic to his cowrites with Adele, the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift, and others, he has an unmistakeable knack for melody and words. He recently did an AMA with Reddit; I just picked the best questions related to songwriting and reposted them here. His new record Love Without Fear comes out on April 15th. Enjoy.
Your songs feature a lot of great instrumental intros, “California” “Love Without Fear”, “FNT” “Never You Mind.”
Any songwriting insights on how to do that?
Thank you! I don’t know how those happen, but I do think it’s important to have the hookiness start right at the beginning. So maybe I’m treating the intro as an equal section of the song.
Hi Dan!!!! Never You Mind is and always has been one of my all time favorite songs. WHERE ON EARTH DID THAT COME FROM? I love the intensity behind it.
“Never You Mind” came from two things – one day in the studio I sat down at the piano and that intro riff just jumped out of my fingers, and I knew I had to make it into a song. And then I’d been thinking about the best way to settle a conflict and I was toying with the idea of just saying, “Hey, let’s forget it!” rather than trying to talk it out. So the title, “Never You Mind,” (which my grandma used to say) was next. And then the song. Glad you love it.
Hi Dan, love the work you did for Adele. I’m a songwriter and am glad to have had a constant writing routine this time. Now I feel I’ve way too many songs. Do you prefer to finish every song or rather sort out before the arranging/producing starts?
Not sure you can have too many songs. Unless it’s like a thousand. That would be too many. I wrote maybe 50 for my last album. 60-some for “Feeling Strangely Fine” by Semisonic. (Not all good.) That seems like a good number.
What is the best advice ever given to you?
I was at a Q&A with the painter Frank Stella. I asked him why so much bad art was in the museums. He said, “It’s not your job to care about bad art. Don’t worry about that. It’s your job to find art that inspires you and which you love, and figure out how the artist did it.”
Dan, what’s your advice for musicians that want to start working as songwriter?
Get good: Write lots of songs. LOTS! Get in front of an audience, even if your plan is not to be a performer, and show them your songs. These are the two main ways to get good. Have friends: Write hits for your friends to sing. (At least write things you think are hits.) Help other people with their music. Hang out. Set up shows with friends. Write songs with friends. Don’t worry too much about networking with already-massive artists. Your friends will be massive in time.
How did you wind up working with Adele?
That was a blind date set up by Rick Rubin, who was producing her album. He’s a fan of my writing, we had worked on a bunch of records before that.
What song have you written do you wish more fans would recognize you for? What was the first song you wrote where you were like “hey, I’m pretty good at this songwriting thing – maybe good enough to be on the radio.”
“All Will Be Well” by Gabe Dixon and me – that’s one of my faves and very few people have heard it. I did fine with “Treacherous” by me and Taylor Swift, but I actually wish more people could hear that song. First song where I thought, “I can do this”: “Temptation” by Semisonic.
Hey Dan, I love your song writing. You and Chris Stapleton writing together is amazing. Any word on when he is releasing his album? I can’t get enough of “The Right Ones” What is Chris like to work with?
Yay Chris Stapleton! I love that dude and his music. “The Right Ones” is a fave collaboration of mine. He and I went down to New Orleans together and wrote 6 songs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (wow!) and then at the end we wrote “The Right Ones” for Chris to sing.
When you sit down for a writing session, do you aim to write about a specific emotion or event or topic, and write about that, or do you just sit with pen and paper and wait to see what comes?
Usually talk about “what’s up” for quite a while. Play each other stuff on Youtube we’ve been listening to. Show and tell a few new songs… Get a feel for where it might go. Then, start talking about ideas. Often the conversation contained three or four great topics or titles for a song already.
Do you wake up with music in your head? How do you get it down before you lose it?
I always used to have a little memo device for this purpose. I’d wake up with a melody in my head and record it right away. Now I use my phone’s Voice Memo application.
Semisonic is basically the soundtrack to my formative years- from convincing all of my friends to buy Great Divide after getting a copy from my dad’s music distribution buddies to getting frustrated that everyone boiled the band down to the (admittedly great) “Closing Time” to blasting “Chemistry” in my Wrangler as I drove around campus in college- I just wanted to say thank you. (and thanks for being so very gracious on Twitter- you’re brilliant to your fan-followers, truly.) But for all the “how was it to work with” questions, I have to ask about one of my favorite songwriters ever- Carole King. “One True Love” is so beautiful and just as soul-searching as it is light. What was it like to write and sing with her?
Thank you. Carole King was gracious, funny, put me at ease, got down to business. Writing with her was like a master class, but we got a great song at the end. And we’ve been in touch on and off since then. What a classy, funny, fearless, brilliant person. Lucky me to run into her so early in my writing career.
As a songwriter, are there any songs out there you wish you had written? Not because it was popular and made a lot of money, but a song that touched you so deeply that you wish you had composed it instead?
“Crazy” By Gnarls Barkley gave me that feeling. “Somebody that I Used to Know” by Gotye gave me that feeling in a big way.
When you write a song, do you write it out on staff paper, or memorize the parts as you come up with them, or something else entirely for that matter?
I can read staff paper but what I do is really folk music, it’s supposed to work by memory. So I just write down the lyrics and remember the melody and chords. If I can’t remember the melody the next day from just reading the lyrics, it’s probably not that great of a melody.
Who do you want to work with next?
I’d love to do something with Nico Muhly someday. I’d love to make music with Scott Hansen of Tycho someday. I love First Aid Kit, maybe they’ll let me write a song with them or produce some tracks. McCartney because he’s the best composer of the last hundred years.
How do you write music in band, versus as a soloist, and especially in regards to coming up with the parts for instruments other than your own?
I think the main thing is to find the right collaborators – if you want to be able to suggest a bassline to the bassist, you better find a dude who doesn’t go ballistic when you do that. If you want to just do your own thing and let them do theirs, then find musicians who have the “big picture” in mind – arranger-types who understand it’s not all about “turn ME up in the mix please.”
Do you have any advice on arranging and recording songs? When you record at home, how do you do it (that sounds silly), and more realistically, what would you recommend to someone who isn’t already a world famous artist? Thanks!
Record music for a purpose. Hopefully the purpose involves an audience, rather than an audition. Record music for your friends and whatever fans you might have. Don’t spend too much time recording music for “gate-keepers” or kingmakers or mucky mucks. Waste of time. Make music for people to use in their lives. In car, in club, while washing dishes, during sex. Be useful
Dan, what song are you most proud of working on with your band? What song are you most proud of working on with another artist?
“Someone Like You” is pretty unbeatable. “Not Ready to Make Nice” – Dixie Chicks and I took on a big challenge and prevailed I’m really proud of those two. “Secret Smile” of Semisonic’s songs, and also “California.” Those seem perfect to me.
I remember seeing a video of you working on your songwriting with a lot of 3 x 5 index cards, what role do they they play in your creative process?
I have a pile of a hundred or so index cards with titles or couplets of lyrics or melody ideas written on them in pencil. On days when I don’t know what to write about, I randomly take a card from the pile and see if it inspires me. If not, I keep turning the cards over until one of them inspires, and then I finish that song.
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